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A guided descent into Class V whitewater
By Haven Livingston
Our bleary eyed group piled out of the bus and gravitated toward the breakfast table. The offerings were simply arranged and easily digestible. Clearly our guides had anticipated the army of butterflies that would be storming our bellies by the time we reached put in. Choosing thoughtfully, I picked up a cup of yogurt and focused on coaxing my butterflies to fly in formation. We were about to raft Cherry Creek on the Tuolumne River, the toughest Class V river that is commercially run in the U.S.
An overnight trip on the Tuolumne River ranks up there in my top five favorite summer short trips. The whitewater is fun, but not too scary, swimming holes are clear and cool, afternoons are spent playing bocce on the beach with a cocktail in hand, and side hikes up Clavey River to go skinny dipping are some of summer’s sweetest moments. When a friend suggested I extend a Tuolumne trip by including rafting the Cherry Creek reach of the river, I just about rolled over in my kayak with joy. This was going to be more than icing on the cake, it was setting up, quite literally, to be the flames atop cherries jubilee.
After rafting down the 11 miles of Class V chaos with All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting company, my kayak would be waiting for me to continue down the lower Tuolumne run as a self-supported overnight trip with a couple other kayaking friends.
Each All-Outdoors guide has been safely leading clients down Cherry Creek for a minimum of five years. My raft’s guide, Adam Walker, had 15 years under his oars, but logic and safety records could not subdue my nerves. The fact remained that if you fell out in a bad spot, there was high potential to get beaten to a pulp by pounding drops. This wasn’t going to be just one or two Class V rapids, this was going to be non-stop action of boulder dodging, vertical drops and at least 11 technical Class V rapids (Class VI being nearly impossible to run).
Our guides used oars to steer and power the raft while four passengers with paddles helped propel the raft upon the guide’s commands. The guides were so experienced and worked together as a team so seamlessly that a novice river runner could easily be led to believe that the run was far less difficult than it truly is.
“When you first start guiding Cherry Creek you lose some sleep over it,” Walker said about his team of guides. “But we know the river really well, and it becomes more a feeling of responsibility for your team and for the guests. It’s really satisfying to watch the guests expressions change from nervous to accomplished at the end of the day.”
After putting in on Cherry Creek and bouncing through the first Class IV rapid, Entrance Exam, our flotilla stopped at the confluence with the main Tuolumne to put us through a swim test. One by one we leapt from the rafts, swam across the river through a Class II current and then submerged ourselves to swim under the raft. True to its purpose, this drill allowed a couple of people in our group to recognize their limits and opt out of the trip before the gnar began.
We crashed down into a blur of rapids with names like Guillotine and Mushroom as we started our heart thumping descent of the river. Our focus as a team narrowed to the guide’s directions and the bounding whitewater in front of us. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time. Soon we were entering the “Miracle Mile,” where the gradient increases from the average of 105 vertical feet per mile to 200 fpm and is a series of drops, boat eating holes and giant boulders in rapid fire succession, including more feel-good named rapids like Blind Faith, Eulogy, and Coffin Rock.
True to form, our guides finessed the rafts down without incident. Though staring down falls waiting for the right moment to plunge forward was equal parts heart stopping and exhilarating, we all came out unscathed and smiling. Not far after a couple of portages around Class VI rapids Flat Rock Falls and Lumsden Falls, we found ourselves at the take out where a hearty lunch was laid out, more than making up for our butterfly breakfast.
My friends and I didn’t have time to revel though, since flows are scheduled by timed release into the river from the dam above; we had little more than an hour to ride the bubble downstream to find camp. Turns out we didn’t make it far. My muscles were aching already from digging the paddle deep on Cherry Creek, but more than that, I was mentally exhausted from having been so anxious about the run for days leading up to it.
We made camp on a tiny beach about a mile upstream from the confluence with Clavey River. By midafternoon we were relaxing on the beach when we noticed the first plumes of orange smoke rising from the ridge behind us. Within twenty minutes small planes were scouting the forest fire from high above and soon after firefighting aircrafts started dumping water and pink retardant on the ridge.
Smoke threatened so close it appeared that the fire could come rushing down the hillside to us with any change in wind. I repacked my kayak in case we needed to make a hasty retreat downstream, but we continued our riverside lounging with short swims and sunbathing. By morning, white smoke filled the canyon and as we saw the water rise, we thought it strange there were no other parties coming downriver. The aircrafts returned and the orange smoke was growing with breezes. We took our time down the remaining 15 miles of small drops and pools and only realized the magnitude of what we’d witnessed once we were on our way home.
What we saw was the start of the great Rim Fire which would eventually burn 371 square miles and take three weeks to contain. The fire burned through the Cherry Creek canyon and into the lower reach of the Tuolumne. The access road had been closed the afternoon before and we were the last to see the golden hillsides dotted with oaks and chaparral.
Rafting trips will continue as normal starting in April and they are going to be the best way to see the effects of the Rim Fire. Most of the camping areas are still intact, since the fire created a mosaic burn pattern in the lower Tuolumne. Though the Tuolumne River will present an entirely new scenic experience, the whitewater remains as epic as always and a California Classic experience not to miss.
NEW SECTIONS OF THE MERCED OPEN PADDLING OPPORTUNITIES IN YOSEMITE
Boaters take notice! The much anticipated Merced Wild and Scenic Final Comprehensive Management Plan has been released and new sections of the Merced River have re-opened to paddling for the first time in over 30 years in Yosemite National Park. Most notably and most widely available to the public is the six mile section running through Yosemite Valley from Stoneman Bridge to Sentinel Meadows Picnic area. This Class I stretch offers an alternative trail from which to see the valley’s wonders with minimal boating experience.
Just a little further downstream, a nearly three and one half mile Class III/IV reach offers a little more whitewater excitement from El Capitan Meadow to Pohono Bridge (the Highway 120/140 junction). For a handful of experts the Class V Merced Gorge is also open, but with many portages still required, it remains to be seen whether anyone will actually come to run it. There are other opportunities open in the backcountry that pack rafters will benefit from the most, since it’s unlikely that kayakers will want to carry their boats up the Nevada Falls staircase.
Each of the reaches newly opened on the Merced will have either a self- registration or online permit system similar to trail quotas. Park management will monitor use and adjust the quotas and process as needed. Specific safety equipment dependent on the reach is also required.
Arguably more important than actually opening these reaches is the fact that Yosemite National Park managers now view the boating community as it would any other user group. “The rivers are our trails and our boats are our backpacks,” said Dave Steindorf, Stewardship Director for American Whitewater. “We want to be treated like everyone else: the backpackers and climbers.” Steindorf applauds the process in which YNP followed to make this happen and sees it as a great step forward for river access.
For more information visit www.americanwhitewater.org/
For information on Tuolumne private trip permits:
– Haven Livingston